The fierce gun battle on the outskirts of Srinagar ended on Monday with army’s elite Special Forces killing all the three terrorists, suspected to be Pakistanis belonging to Lashkar-e-Tayiba, in a 48-hour operation that also left six security men and a civilian dead.
The heavily-armed terrorists, apparently a “suicide squad”, were holed up in a multi-storey government building of Entrepreneurship Development Institute in Pampore, along the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, since Saturday afternoon.
“The encounter has ended and three militants who had taken refuge inside the building have been killed,” a police official said.
“We have killed three militants of whom we had the information,” Major General Arvind Dutta, General Officer Commanding of Victor Force, told reporters.
He said the identity of the slain terrorists is being ascertained but added they appeared to be foreigners.
To a question, he said by saying “foreigners”, he meant they had come from “across the border”, hinting at Pakistan.
In Delhi, Central Reserve Police Force Director General Prakash Mishra said the attack “appears to be” the handiwork of LeT terror outfit.
Maj Gen Dutta said ‘war-like’ stores, including large quantity of arms and ammunition were recovered from the site.
A combing operation was underway to sanitise the building which has 44 rooms plus lobbies, washrooms and a restaurant on the top floor, he said.
The operation, which began on Saturday evening, saw five security force personnel including two captains of the elite commando units laying down their lives while battling the terrorists, suspected to be of foreign origin.
A civilian was killed in the crossfire between the two sides while 120 civilians were evacuated safely.
As the operation entered the third day on Monday, the Special Forces of the army maximised the force, using mortar shells to flush out the terrorists, the officials said.
Maj Gen Dutta said the building appeared to be a pre-determined target where they rushed into after attacking a CRPF convoy on the highway.
“They were carrying a large quantity of arms and ammunition... They were seen running into the building with big bag packs,” the army officer said.
“Inputs as of now suggest they were foreign terrorists,” Maj Gen Dutta said, adding it needs to be verified.
“The way the attack happened, it seems that they belonged to a suicide squad,” he said.
He said it was possible that the militants may have conducted a recce of the campus before the attack.
“It cannot be said as yet, but it is possible that they might have conducted a recce. Mostly, the foreign terrorists do not conduct such type of recces. But we cannot rule out the possibility,” he said.
The army officer, however, admitted that there was no specific intelligence about the attack.
Responding to questions over the operation taking so long, he said the security forces took time to neutralize the terrorists as there were many challenges because of many hiding places in the campus.
“We have to conduct every operation after keeping in kind various challenges. This building had many rooms and many corners and it had many hiding places.
“We did not have the paucity of time. We wanted to clear the building stage-wise and neutralise the terrorists in the end,” he said.
As the security forces mounted an assault on the building on Saturday, they met with stiff resistance from the ultras who are holding vantage points inside the building.
“The terrorists had a huge opportunity to hide inside the big complex....They had an advantage. They could see our movements,” the GOC said.
He said the CRPF initially made an attempt to enter the building immediately after their convoy was targeted but the terrorists threw grenades and fired at them, forcing them to withdraw.
It is then that the army stepped in, Gen Dutta said.
Two CRPF jawans and a civilian were killed and nine other jawans injured when militants opened fire on CRPF convoy on Saturday afternoon.
During the intense gunfight, the top floor of the building caught fire which forced the ultras to shift towards one side of the complex where they were nuetralised, the police official said.
“It was a successful operation as three hardcore terrorists have been killed,” Maj Gen Dutta said.
“Their identity is being checked with the help of the police,” he said, adding “Rest, no further information is available as of now... it was not immediately known whether they had infiltrated recently or not.”
The GOC said after the terrorists attacked the CRPF convoy and went inside the EDI building, they wanted to provoke security forces to fire upon them in an area where civilians were present in large numbers.
“If the forces had not exercised restraint, then there was a possibility of collateral damage. Everyone carried the operation meticulously... I salute the martyrs. The bravery they exhibited, I salute that. They gave a sacrifice for the army, nation and for peace and prosperity of the state,” he said.
Even as the gunbattle was underway, hundreds of residents from nearby Pampore town and adjoining areas tried to march towards the encounter site but were asked by security forces to disperse.
However, they started raising slogans and indulged in stone-pelting, a police official said, adding police fired teargas shells and pellets to disperse the protestors.
At least three persons sustained minor injuries in the clashes, the official added.
Army lost three elite commandos -- two captains and a lance naik -- in the gunfight.
Captain Pawan Kumar was killed in a pre-dawn exchange of fire with terrorists yesterday while he was leading a team of special forces in clearing the third floor of the building after sanitising first and second floor, Maj Gen Dutta said.
Captain Tushar Mahajan and Lance Naik Om Prakash also sustained fatal injuries in the afternoon on Sunday.
The army paid a befitting tribute with full military honours to its martyrs -- Captain Tushar Mahajan and Lance Naik Om Parkash -- who attained martyrdom on Sunday during an operation in Pampore, a defence spokesman said.
“Homage was paid to the valour and sacrifice of the martyrs in a solemn ceremony held at Badami Bagh Cantonment.
Late Captain Tushar Mahajan and Lance Naik Om Prakash were members of the team that had launched an operation on February 21 against the terrorists who ambushed CRPF personnel and took refuge in the EDIBuilding and were instrumental in clearing major portion of the multi-storeyed building where the terrorists had hidden.
“In this process, they engaged the terrorists at close quarters and in the ensuing firefight, suffered grievous injuries to which they later succumbed,” the spokesman added.